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Subcontinental Drift

After a year answering phones for Swiss International Air Lines Ltd. in a Geneva call center, Myriam Vock was eager to see something of the world. So she packed her bags and hopped a plane to India. Two and a half years later she's still there, sharing a five-bedroom apartment in an upscale New Delhi suburb with four other foreigners.

And how does she pay the bills? She works in a call center, getting paid a fraction of what she did back home. "I'm not earning much, but there is enough to live well and travel," says Vock, 21, who answers queries from French-speaking callers for Tecnovate eSolutions, a Delhi arm of London-based online travel agency eBookers PLC. "I don't pay taxes here, and life is so much cheaper," she says. For fun, she and her roommates take in a Bollywood flick a couple of times a week and cook at home or order in pizza when they tire of spicier Indian fare. She has already visited exotic spots such as the spiritual haven Hrishikesh in northern India and is now charting itineraries for the next year or so.


Worried about your job fleeing to India? One strategy is to chase it -- an option a growing number of twentysomething Westerners are choosing. Sure, the trend will never make up for the thousands of positions lost back home, but for adventurous young people, a spell in a call center in Bangalore or Bombay can help defray the costs of a grand tour of the subcontinent and beyond.

Of course, firangis -- or foreigners -- have always been part of the Indian outsourcing scene. But until recently, they were mostly highly paid experts from companies that were sending their work abroad, helping the new Indian team learn the processes.

Those folks are still coming to India, but they're being joined by less-experienced people who make little more than the rock-bottom wages paid to locals that are a key draw for multinationals. They typically earn about $350 a month and work the phones for six months to a year before chilling on the beaches of Goa, trekking in the Himalayas, or visiting the palaces of Rajasthan. They often get their airfare to India paid by their new employer, live for free in a company flat with other foreigners, and receive free transportation to the office. "It's a win-win situation," says Sreeram Iyer, chief executive of Scope International, the Chennai-based human resources and software development outsourcing operation of Standard Chartered Bank. "We're not looking for tenure at all," he says.

Despite India's seemingly limitless pool of workers, these foreigners make up for talent shortages faced by the outsourcing industry. Even as call centers are the first job choice for millions of young Indians, employers are getting choosier about the people they hire, and it's tough to train Indians to speak the kind of colloquial English, French, Spanish, German, or Dutch that customers want. Although no one knows for sure how many young foreigners are answering phones in India, some 30,000 expats today work for Indian tech and outsourcing companies, about triple the number two years ago, says the National Association of Software & Services Companies, the industry trade association.

And that's just the start. The country's outsourcers will need some 160,000 workers with top-notch foreign-language skills by 2010, estimates Evalueserve, a Delhi-based company that provides research services to corporate clients worldwide. But in the next five years, Indian schools will only produce 40,000 or so grads with the proficiency needed for those jobs. Evalueserve expects foreigners to make up the difference.

Evalueserve is helping to kick-start the trend. It employs 40 foreigners on a staff of 900 serving clients in 65 countries, and plans to add another 150 firangis this year. "It is important to have cultural contact and language skills to enhance our offerings," says CEO Ashish Gupta. As an affiliate of eBookers -- which serves clients from across Europe -- Tecnovate is also leading the way. More than half its workers, 40 out of 70, are Europeans. Next year the company wants to add another dozen or so. And Pune-based outsourcer GTL Ltd. hired a London employment agency to recruit 11 young people when it won a contract to provide customer service for a British company. "It helped us to benchmark our people doing the same job," says GTL's human resources chief, Anand Desai.

The trend is also being fueled by the changing customer base of India's outsourcing shops. Traditionally, they focused on serving companies with customers in the U.S. and Britain. But now they're looking to boost their business from Europe. In 2004, 64% of all outsourcing contracts came from the U.S. and Britain. Just 29% came from the rest of Europe, but that number could jump to 40% within five years, Nasscom says.

Some companies are getting creative to keep the pipeline filled with new recruits. Obtaining work visas for foreigners in India requires hours of standing in line for permits. And visas are only given for a year, so anyone wanting to stay longer has to repeat the process. To get around those hassles, eBookers hires recruits in Europe and then transfers them to India. While it takes a week or two in Europe to process a visa, getting a work permit on the ground in India takes three or four months.


There's even a new group of service providers to help supply India's outsourcers with hires from overseas. In October, 2004, Tim Bond -- a 32-year-old consultant to offshoring companies in Britain -- set up Launch Offshore, a London recruitment firm that caters to Indian call centers. He has found jobs for 100 workers, and this year expects to place 200 more. Headhunters India, a leading tech staffing company, says it gets about 300 unsolicited foreign résumés every month, and has found jobs for about 100 expats in the past two years. "Call it reverse brain drain," says Managing Director Kris Lakshmikanth. At Team Lease Ltd., India's largest temp agency, résumés pour in from Africa, Japan, Poland, and Latin America. Although many are from travelers looking for quick cash while visiting India, Team Lease has placed some recruits with the likes of IBM (IBM) and Dell (DELL).

The workers don't come only for adventure. Many have had trouble getting jobs in their native land. Nine months ago, Kenny Rooney, a 28-year-old Scotsman, moved to India to answer phones for GTL in Pune, and quickly advanced to become a trainer and team leader. "India provided me a growth opportunity that wasn't there back home," he says.

More important, time spent answering phones in India can also work wonders on résumés. Kati Koivukangas, for instance, was working at a travel agency in her native Finland when she heard that an outsourcing company in New Delhi was hiring. Koivukangas, a 28-year-old graduate in tourism and hotel management from University of Helsinki, jumped at the chance and has been in India for more than two years. She has worked her way up the ladder, now overseeing a dozen other Finns who answer calls. "I'll hang on for another six months and then make a call on what to do," she says. "Not only do I get to see the country, but the Indian experience looks good on my CV."

By Nandini Lakshman

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